If you ask the people closest to me, they would probably say I’m as a social butterfly, despite my self-identification as a bit of a lone wolf. I’ve always been incredibly involved with my community and extracurriculars, and through those activities. I’ve forged many long lasting friendships that keep me busy and happy. Despite this smattering of wonderful people in my life, and a seemingly thriving social calendar, I have always felt most comfortable when I spend time alone. Whether reading a book in a park, writing poetry in a quiet coffee shop, exploring a new city, or going to my favorite restaurant solo, I always find alone time to be precious and revitalizing.
Unfortunately though, in North American culture especially, there is a stigma of doing things alone. How many times have you gone to a restaurant and seen someone eating by themselves? Was your first reaction pity? Or did you consider that the solo diner might be relishing the opportunity to eat a meal in peace? It’s difficult to break down the expectation that those who spend time alone are lonely, but many people, myself included, need this time in solitude to develop and grow into the people we hope to be, or we simply just enjoy the momentary silence more than the constant chatter of the outside world.
Most of the times in my life where I’ve thrived the most, and given myself the nourishment and self-care that I deserve, have been when I made spending time with myself a priority. When I left home for my freshman year of college, I went to a university where a large number of people I graduated high school with also attended, including my best friend. I was excited to embark on a new journey with some familiar faces, but I was decidedly burnt out from being with people around the clock the way I was all throughout my youth, so I made a resolution. I promised myself that my freshman year would be about me, and only me. That’s not to say that I didn’t sustain my friendships from high school; in fact, they flourished through distance and time apart. But I did put myself first, for probably the first time in my life. I wasn’t super interested in making new friends or spending time with the rest of the girls in my dorm wing, and I was looking forward to getting to know who I was outside of the organizations I was part of and the company I kept.
This resolution may sound negative or depressing to some people, or even unnecessarily lonely, but I truly believe it was the best thing I could have done for myself. I still remained as involved as ever, trying out different clubs or organizations, but I made sure to go because I wanted to, not because someone I knew was going to be in it as well. I ate my meals by myself most of the time, reserving those windows for pleasure reading or listening to music. I walked along the multitude of trails around town, relishing the beauty of the rivers and forests around me. I went to local businesses, pointedly trying new things and making community connections that I hold to this day. I spent quality time with my own thoughts or in the company of books and nature, and I was better for it. I am better for it.
After that time spent investing in myself, I felt content in my own skin, and I wanted to challenge myself more, branch even farther out of my comfort. So, I applied for National Student Exchange, a program that allowed me to pay tuition to my current school, but go to a different university anywhere in North America. At first, I felt the impulse to ask my best friend to come with me, as we were accustomed to doing just about everything together from a young age, but I decided I needed to keep the streak going, and embark on this even newer journey by myself. I ended up being placed in New Orleans, a place I had been a few times before on various trips, but I doubted that I had ever experienced the true New Orleans, the city outside of the bustle of the French Quarter or Popeye’s commercials. I was excited to explore on my own, and seek out experiences that I never would’ve been able to had I stayed at my small riverside university. While I was more homesick than I could’ve ever imagined for the first few weeks, I grew to love the community like my own, and to my surprise, made a loving group of close friends. Meeting such amazing people while being so far out of my comfort zone made me understand the value in putting myself out there socially, and also made me appreciate all of the wonderful folks back home even more. I can certainly credit those discoveries to all of the time I spent in reflection and solitude during my time there, and I will always consider NOLA to be a second home.
Through endeavoring out of my comfort zone, and allowing myself to spend time on things that fulfilled me, rather than just focusing on others, I realized the value of alone time and surrounding myself with people I love. While it continues to be a struggle not to spread myself thin socially, I have learned to focus on the relationships that build me up, bring me happiness, and feel effortless, rather than playing perpetual catch up with a huge web of acquaintance-friends. I have found so much joy through investing in the relationships in my life that feel genuine and important, and I am so lucky to have a community that supports and loves me wholly (as well as understands I need to be a hermit sometimes).
If you ever feel stigma about doing things by yourself, or making alone time a priority, think about it as investing in yourself, making yourself a better friend, partner, and person for the people around you. You will be able to understand yourself more intimately, and hopefully feel empowered to do things for yourself more often, while being there for others. And, for god sakes, take yourself out for dinner once in awhile!